The holidays can be the most wonderful time of the year. But they can also be the most painful, especially for gay kids rejected by their family. A hard candy Christmas doesn’t begin to describe the pain, and not only at the holidays.

Fortunately, there are resources to support these youth and their families in working through the disagreements and misunderstandings that frequently occur because parents—especially religious and socially conservative ones—don’t fully understand what their child’s “different” sexual orientation means. 

The Family Acceptance Project, created in 2002 by internationally noted clinical social worker Caitlin Ryan and based at San Francisco State University, has developed print and video educational materials, and conducted hundreds of workshops, to help families in the United States and a number of other countries from all kinds of ethnic, racial, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds. The concepts developed from the project’s work provided the basis for an “official” practitioner’s resource guide called A Practitioner’s Resource Guide: Helping Families to Support Their LGBT Children, which Ryan herself authored for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“Meeting families where they are,” Ryan told me in an interview. “We build on family strengths to show them what we’ve learned from our research, and help them understand that some of the ways they have treated their children have been putting them at risk.” 

For example, many parents believe they are helping their gay child by discouraging him from expressing what they consider inappropriate behavior for a boy. “Parents,” says a project brochure, “think they are helping their children survive in a world they feel will never accept them by trying to prevent them from learning about or from being gay. But adolescents feel as if their parents don’t love them, are ashamed of them, or even hate them.”

Ryan said it’s important to realize that gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth are coming out at younger ages. “When most people think of gay youth,” she said, “they think of 16-, 17-, or 20-year-olds—not 12 years old. That is the reality of what we’re dealing with now.” 

She said there is a misconception among many parents, clergy, and health care providers “that someone needs to be an adult to know they’re gay.” They don’t understand that sexual orientation is about more than sex. “If they think it’s only about sex,” said Ryan, “they wouldn’t know that on average, whether someone is gay or straight, they become aware of their first crush at an average age of ten.”

Despite the ever-earlier coming out of so many youth, Ryan said the focus on serving young LGBT youth has been the same: peer support and, to some extent, from individual providers, but not through the family. “Family has always been seen as an adversary,” she said, “so there have not been services for families, certainly not for families that speak a language other than English, or who are socially conservative, to provide accurate information for them about what sexual orientation means.”

The assumption was the families didn’t love their children, maybe even wanted to hurt them. But Ryan said the reality is exactly the opposite in many instances. “We found they did love them,” she said. “They even attributed their extreme actions—such as kicking the gay kid out of the house—to care and concern, not wanting to hurt the gay family member. They themselves didn’t perceive their words or behavior as hurtful. Often the parents mistakenly believe their child will “choose” not to be gay if they show him what it will cost him in lost family support.

A lot of the project’s work involves storytelling, said Ryan, helping families to reframe their story of having a gay child, as well as the story the gay child tells himself about his family. It aims to move the needle from a discussion about morality to well-being, helping families understand that sexual orientation is about emotions and relationships, not only sex. It gives parents the opportunity to share their hopes and dreams for their child. The Family Acceptance Project’s educational materials and workshops help them to reframe how they think and suggest strategies to build the skills they need to support their gay child in a healthy way. Ryan said parents often begin to change the dynamic simply by listening to their child. “That is accepting behavior,” she said.

The benefits of accepting behavior can be as tremendously positive as the effects of rejection can be harmful. “It’s a health hazard to remove young people from their families,” said Ryan. “Research shows that when children are removed from home for reasons of abuse or neglect, and placed in custodial care, their health risks skyrocket.” By contrast, the project has found that increased family support reduces substance abuse, HIV risk behavior, and suicidality. “This is exciting,” said Ryan. “This is a low-cost, low-tech approach that has benefits for the family. It not only strengthens children, but it also strengthens families.”

Christmases future are being transformed, one family at a time, through the work of pioneers like Caitlin Ryan, and the resources created by the Family Acceptance Project. That is something truly wonderful.

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